Book Review: Middlemarch
More than a Victorian soap opera
It’s difficult to overstate how important George Eliot’s novels were to me in my twenties. I had recently graduated college and had undertaken a reading program to tackle some of the classics of 19th century literature: Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Trollope, Melville, Tolstoy.
Austen’s humorous skewering of propriety was delightful, and Dicken’s comical and scathing attacks on social ills was always compelling, but there was something different about George Eliot’s work. Her characters faced the struggles of life and love, but they were always rooted in the machinations of a 19th century social system.
Over the last few years, I’ve been revisiting Eliot’s novels, only to find that I am having a vastly different reaction to them this time around. Some of them are a bit ponderous and too educative. I feel like the author is trying to edify me on the psychological landscape of the soul. What I recognize is that in my twenties, I was fascinated by the suppressed passion of the characters and how Eliot analyzed actions to a minute degree. Now, I confess, I sometimes find the lengthy passages rather tedious.
So far, I’ve reread five of Eliot’s novels:
Daniel Deronda: More comprehensible, now that I am older, and much more fascinating than I remembered.
Romola: This time I understood the historical backdrop better, but I enjoyed the plot less.
Silas Marner: On previous readings, I found this story rather dull, but this time around I was thoroughly charmed.
The Mill on the Floss: I admit it: I have no need to read this novel ever again. The characters are too infuriating.
And then there is Middlemarch – my favorite of her novels. It is an altogether different scale of work.
This novel focuses on the provincial town of Middlemarch and the surrounding environs, and how the lives of the residents intersect and intertwine. A simplistic summary of the plot could focus on the soap opera quality of these characters' lives, but of course George Eliot is working on a much grander scale.
The three primary stories are
1) Dorothea Brook and Edward Causabon: Dorothea eagerly marries the bookish, intellectual Causabon with the hope of supporting him in his great life’s work, The Key to All Mythologies. All her idealism comes crashing down when she recognizes his pedantry and the outdated quality of his academic scholarship. To make matters worse, Causabon is insufferably patronizing to Dorothea and needlessly jealous of his cousin, Will Ladislaw. In his will, he enacts a cruel judgment against Dorothea and Will.
2) Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy: Ambitious surgeon Lydgate arrives in Middlemarch intending to raise the standards of medical treatments but is met with resistance and hostility from the local doctors. Along the way, he falls for Rosamond Vincy, the town beauty. Their rocky marriage strains under the pressures of the couple’s radically divergent views of what marriage should be.
3) Mary Garth and Fred Vincy: Spoiled Fred Vincy hopes to make his fortune by inheriting it. When his chance of inheriting a valuable estate comes crashing to the ground, Fred must face the fact that now he must work for a living. What is clear is his love for Mary, who is far too sensible to settle on a layabout as a husband. She recognizes that Fred has more to him than he is willing to admit. And so, Fred learns that in order to win Mary's heart, he must learn to grow up.
In her other novels, George Eliot focuses on one or two individuals, but in Middlemarch she broadens the cast of characters. While the plot primarily focuses on these three stories, there are others that make up the webwork of provincial life. Because of this wider scope, the plot moves along much more swiftly. There is still the careful examination of individual motivations and struggles, but this time Eliot plays off these analyses against one another. No one’s life is lived in isolation, so there are intersections by which characters influence one another, even if only in a tangential manner.
The predominant theme of Middlemarch is progress. Set against the Reform Act of 1832, the novel examines how individuals strive to bring lasting and positive change to society, only to be met by resistance to any change in the old ways of doing things. As with Lydate’s medical procedures, there is a strong core of antagonists who wish to keep to the old-fashioned methods of medicine, despite any evidence that treatments could be improved.
Likewise, Dorothea longs to raise the standard of living for villagers. Though she has the means to do so, she has to face with the limitations put upon women’s ability to act independently. Many times in order to make a generous gesture, she is forced to gain the approval of the men in her life. How successful could she have been if she had been permitted to use her own judgment? The men respect her intelligence but generally treat her in a patronizing manner.
I’ve read Middlemarch three times, and when I finished it this time, I wanted to start reading it over again.
Virginia Woolf famously stated that Middlemarch is “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” I certainly enjoyed it when I was 23, but now that I am much older, I appreciate it on a whole new level.